An A380 at Airbus Hamburg-Finkenwerder, cleverly imitating the current Virgin Who? paint job AIRBUS photo

An Airbus A380 is doing tests flights at a maximum take off weight off around 600 tonnes, according to the French aviation webzine Aeroweb.

While the article lacks depth and casts no light on the really interesting questions arising from this development, the tests do, among other things, put the A380 on course toward evolving into an airliner capable of carrying a commercially attractive multi-class payload non-stop in both directions  between Melbourne or Sydney and London.

The article vaguely refers to the flights being 30 tonnes heavier than normal for an A380, and also refers to 600 tonnes, but in general A380s operate with a maximum takeoff weight a few tonnes shy of 560 tonnes, and to get to the higher figure quoted by Aeroweb you would have assume it is referring to the certified maximum weight for a rejected take off of 575 tonnes.

What the article does allow us to take as real however is that Airbus intends having a ‘close to’  600 tonnes version of the A380 available as the standard delivered product in its current volumetric cabin size from sometime in 2013. Until recently the guidance was for a 573 tonnes upgrade, so we can infer there has been  a further refinement  in Airbus’s plans for the giant jet in the shorter term, perhaps aimed at clinching an order from Cathay Pacific, which has basically told it that unless it can do Hong Kong-New York non-stop they will won’t do the deal.

It is inconceivable that Airbus will not have by then added other efficiency refinements to the airframe, as it and Boeing do all the time for their range of airliners, meaning that in 2013 a new-standard A380 with a fuel capacity more than 11 per cent higher than at present will be able to fly a full payload non-stop between say Hong Kong and New York, or Dubai and Los Angeles, and maybe Perth-London, which is a route where diversionary fuel requirements at the Perth end are a real pain, so, maybe not.  It could, stress could, mean that Airbus is pitching the post 2013 A380 as having a full payload range capability close to that of an Airbus A340-500 0r Boeing 777-200LR, but without either of those smaller jets being fitted with the auxiliary fuel tanks they could take.

The A340-500 has operated the world’s longest range non-stop regular service between Singapore and Newark (for New York) since 2004. Some of those flights are airborne for 18 hours 30 minutes depending on the route chosen and the headwinds encountered.

Since Qantas still has A380s on order for delivery in or after 2013,  those jets could operate its new Sydney-Dallas Fort Worth flights without the westbound stop in Brisbane that Qantas will have to make using the Boeing 747-400ERs deployed on the route, and carry in terms of current configurations, around 144 more passengers.

But let’s not confuse commercially attractive with operationally attractive. Non-stop 20 hour flights between Melbourne or Sydney and London do not make much sense if for the sake of saving one or two hours in trip time the fuel burn per passenger is unaffordable in a world where fuel is somewhere north of $150 dollars per barrel of refined aviation grade kerosene, or the biofuel blends likely to play an increasing role in aviation by the middle of this decade.

The most fuel efficient flights will still be those which land somewhere like Beijing, on the shortest practicable routing, which is across northern China and Siberia.

The increased weight A380 flying trials now doesn’t even take full advantage of the basic design of the giant jet in terms of unused fuel carrying space.

Using Airbus figures, a 600 tonnes maximum take off weight A380 would not use all of the currently unused space in the  central wing area for fuel, and would be maybe 20-25 tonnes short of the current lifting potential of a wing and general structure which was clearly over engineered with a view to allowing future ‘stretches’ of the fuselage as well as higher payload/range options.

The A380 in those regards has a lot of potential that a 600 tonne 2013 edition would not fully realise.

The two current engine designs for the A380, from Rolls-Royce and the Engine Alliance of GE and Pratt and Whitney, are intended to be upgradable to the higher outputs required by a heavier version, fingers (cough) crossed.